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Luxury bus service makes its pitch to Florida travelers

For that upcoming business trip to Miami or Tallahassee, is there any chance you'll give up your seat on a plane for one on a bus?

Wait a second. These are new motor coaches with just 27 reclining leather seats, Wi-Fi and power plugs for your laptop, all for a fraction of the price of an airline ticket. Even two checked bags and a carry-on come free.

You'll get there cheaper, in more comfort, with fewer hassles, and in about the same time.

So goes the pitch from RedCoach, a division of Groupo Plaza, one of South America's largest transportation companies. The company launched daily scheduled express bus service in Florida last April, starting with trips between Miami and Orlando, still the busiest route.

In Tampa, RedCoach stops at a commercial parking garage just south of Tampa International Airport. Travelers can catch twice-daily buses to Orlando and continue on to Miami, Gainesville, Tallahassee and Atlanta. Last week, the company added stops in Downtown Disney and Fort Pierce. It expects to include Jacksonville soon.

RedCoach says the business is growing, with about 1,500 passengers a week. But the picture's not so rosy in Tampa, where the bus line arrived two months ago.

Too many days look like Thursday morning when driver Steve Resatar steered his empty coach into a lot for A-1 Express Airport Parking. He headed back to Orlando 20 minutes later with every seat empty. Two customers with reservations didn't show.

"It's usually ones and twos,'' Resatar said. RedCoach is selling $5 tickets for trips between Tampa and Orlando — the usual price is $20 per round trip — through Dec. 31 to juice up sales. The company hasn't advertised or otherwise promoted itself in the area.

"Demand is there,'' says spokeswoman Kim Hinton. "They just don't know about us.''

Like other new express bus companies, RedCoach targets business travelers fed up with the hassles of flying. Especially for flights of 90 minutes or less. When you add up your time at the check-in counter, security screening, bag claim and your actual time in the air, a bus ride can take about as long.

Other companies run express buses in the Northeast and Midwest with free Wi-Fi and power plugs. Greyhound teamed up with Peter Pan Bus Lines on BoltBus, The first riders to book a seat on each trip pay just $1. The average fare is $22.

Greyhound tore out five seats from its own express buses, giving riders more than a foot of extra legroom. "It's designed as a different kind of service from our cross-country trips,'' said spokeswoman Bonnie Bastain.

But are these upgraded buses attracting serious business travelers or mostly cost-conscious students?

RedCoach's own surveys show just 13 percent of customers are traveling on business. One out of four are college students.

"The really large companies are not yet there as far as buses,'' says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. He notes that as much as 70 percent of business travel comes from smaller companies that might be more open to air travel alternatives.

One of the RedCoach's biggest boosters is a one-man business. David Curnes, a distributor for Matco tools, paid $129 in July for a round trip from Orlando to Atlanta to catch a trade show. He slept through most of the eight-hour red-eye trip to Atlanta and awoke a convert to luxury bus travel.

Curnes, 53, had a long-cultivated disdain for air travel. With two metal knee replacements, he expects the third degree every time he goes through security. "It's the hassle,'' Curnes says. "The seats are uncomfortable and the people are rude. I just don't like it.''

It's unlikely RedCoach can bank on legions of die-hard non-fliers like Curnes. It's also really hard to separate Floridians from their cars.

When the Delta Connection ended nonstop flights from Tampa to Tallahassee a few years back, local lobbyists and others tied to the Legislature got accustomed to the four-hour drive. When the flights returned, many stayed in the driver's seat.

And then there's the stigma attached to bus travel, the picture of smoke-spewing clunkers that stop in every Podunk along the route and then drop passengers at a decrepit terminal in a sketchy part of town.

Stuart Klaskin of aviation consultants Klaskin, Kushner & Co. in Coral Gables called the idea of luxury bus travel a "great concept."

"But it doesn't market well," says Klaskin, who studied the concept of express luxury bus service in Florida for a friend last year. "When you say intercity bus, people think the Port Authority bus terminal. It's the impression people have.''

Right now, it's those impressions that RedCoach has to overcome.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8128.

RedCoach

Tampa Roundtrips (Regular Fares/Specials)

To Orlando ($20/$10), To Miami ($85/$43), To Gainesville ($70),

To Tallahassee ($85), To Atlanta ($120)

Contact: www.redcoachusa.com, 1-877-733-0724

Terminal: A-1 Express Airport Parking, 5317 Avion Park Drive, Tampa

Luxury bus service makes its pitch to Florida travelers 12/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 28, 2010 12:57pm]
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